Chris Agee

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Chris Agee
Born (1956-01-18) January 18, 1956 (age 58)
San Francisco, California, USA
Occupation Poet, Essayist, and Editor of Irish Pages

Christopher Robert Agee (born 18 January 1956 in San Francisco) is a poet, essayist and editor living in Ireland. He holds dual American and Irish citizenship, and has spent most of his adult life in Ireland. He also spends part of each year at his house on the Dalmatian island of Korčula, near Dubrovnik, in Croatia.[1][2]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Chris Agee was born on 18 January 1956 in San Francisco and grew up in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.[3] During the last three years of secondary school, he attended Phillips Academy (Andover), before spending a year of French language study at the Université d’Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France. He then attended Harvard University, where he studied with the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, and the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger. He took Fitzgerald’s renowned prosody seminar and wrote his senior thesis on W.H. Auden, also under the former’s supervision. His Harvard friends included Mira Nair, Julie Agoos and André Aciman.[4] During the summers of 1977 and 1978, he worked as a research assistant in Ireland for the American non-fiction writer Robert Coles, who was preparing a series of articles on the Northern Troubles.[5][6] In June 1979, he graduated cum laude with a BA in American Literature and Language. Since 1979, just after graduation, he has lived in Ireland.[3][6]

Life in Ireland[edit]

During the summers of 1977 and 1978, Agee was based in the Wicklow Mountains and Belfast, but travelled widely throughout the island. After graduation from Harvard, Agee worked three months as a night watchman in a hotel on Block Island, Rhode Island. He travelled to Ireland, via London and Wales, in late September, arriving in Dun Laoghaire on the morning of 30 September, the day of John Paul II’s arrival in Ireland and the subsequent huge mass in Phoenix Park, which he attended with most of the rest of Dublin.[7]

Agee intended to stay only a year or two in Ireland, but by the mid-eighties his residence in Belfast had become permanent. Between 1979 and 1989, he worked as a Lecturer in Adult Literacy at a further education college in the city.[6] From 1989 to 1992, he worked full-time for the Community Education Department of The Open University in Ireland; from 1988 to 2004, he also taught a number of arts and American studies courses in the Arts Faculty of The Open University, including individual tutorials, for ten years, with republican and loyalist prisoners at the Maze and Maghaberry Prisons.[4][8] From 1992 to 2007, he was employed by the University of East London (on a Senior Lecturer scale) to direct the Irish office of a British trade union education fund.[7] Since 2007, when he resigned from that post, he has worked as the full-time Editor of Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing (based at The Linen Hall Library, Belfast) as well as in a freelance literary capacity, including as a reviewer for The Irish Times.[3][9][10]

His wife, whom he married in 1990, grew up in Armagh and studied art and design at the University of Ulster in Belfast. Their first child, Jacob Eoin, was born in 1993; their second, Miriam Aoife, in 1997. Miriam died suddenly in 2001, of complications following a volvulus of the fundus, after four days in intensive care. The poems in Agee’s third collection, Next to Nothing, were written in the aftermath of her death.[7]

Published work and literary activity[edit]

Agee wrote his first poems during his last year at Harvard. The first to be published appeared in Irish periodicals in the late 1980s.[7] He is now the author of three books of poems, In the New Hampshire Woods (The Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1992), First Light (The Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2003) and Next to Nothing (Salt Publishing, Cambridge, England, 2009).

Of the first, the American poet Devin Johnston wrote: “Agee’s careful documentation of nature, his eschewal of cleverness, his poetry’s modest refusal to be ‘about’ anything, will not be unfamiliar to readers of American poets such as Charles Wright, Gary Snyder or, most importantly, William Carlos Williams”. Of the second, the Scots poet Don Paterson wrote: “First Light is a very fine work indeed. Agee seems to have hit that fine balance between allusiveness and clarity, and formal control and spontaneity, that so few poets manage to achieve these days”.[11] Of the third, the Irish poet John F. Deane wrote: “Strong and real and thought-through ... a masterful collection”.[12]

Agee is currently finalizing a collection of non-fiction and critical essays, entitled Journey to Bosnia.[13]

Agee’s work is included in seven anthologies of Irish poetry and one of American poetry. In general, he is considered both an American and an Irish poet, though there is some reluctance in essentialist quarters to include him under the latter rubric, despite his citizenship. Typically, the nationally ambiguous writer (of which, of course, there are numerous historical examples) falls between two stools, not unlike the “Anglo-Irish” writers of earlier generations, or even such Irish writers as Samuel Beckett (also a French writer) and Brian Moore (also a Canadian writer). As Agee has argued: “In the new Age of the Refugee that grows apace, it is perhaps no bad thing for a writer to be disabused somewhat of the enchantments of roots, and to feel in himself, as a distant echo, the fragility of the insular in the face of the global upheavals. In a critical sense, the danger is that you might seem to fall between two stools. In a creative sense, the bifocal reward is that you are bound by neither”.[7]

Agee has read his poetry at many venues and festivals throughout Ireland and further afield.[7] His poems and translations have first been published in Times Literary Supplement,[14] New Statesman,[15] The Irish Times,[16] Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry (Chicago),[17] The American Poetry Review,[18] The Harvard Review,[19] The Southern Review,[20] Orion[21] and many others. A Bosnian translation of Next to Nothing (Gotovo ništa), by Irena Žlof, is forthcoming in Sarajevo.[7]

In 2001, he participated in the Struga Festival,[4][7] Eastern Europe’s most distinguished poetry festival, which that year awarded its “Golden Wreath” to Seamus Heaney.[22] In 2003, Agee was an International Writing Fellow at the William Joiner Center, University of Massachusetts, Boston.[23] In 2007 and 2009, respectively, he was a writer-in-residence at the St James Cavalier Arts Centre in Malta,[7] and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage, on Achill Island, Co Mayo. He has had many periods of residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a workplace for artists at Annaghmakerrig, Newbliss, Co Monaghan.[7]

Next to Nothing (2009)[edit]

In his one statement on the collection, Agee has written:

In addition to individual poems and several sequences, Next to Nothing includes a section entitled “Heartscapes”, which consists of 59 “micro-poems”, as I call them. Many of these are extremely short; most were written during the very bleak and soul-sick year of 2003; and the whole section (with one poem per page) will take no more than thirty minutes to read, and indeed can be read with ease by any general intelligent reader, whatever their familiarity with or experience of poetry. Swiftness of effect was, in fact, part of the intention and fidelity; the challenge here as throughout the book was to record true and deep “heart-feeling” (as opposed to the “feeling” of sensibility, apperception, historical moment, etc.) – that most delicate of poetic material, owing to the swiftness of emotion itself. For once, I think I can say that these poems wrote themselves, in the sense of my being a quite passive amanuensis caught up in pain rather than any sort of instigator – drawing on the habit of technique belonging to what had become a previous life, whilst suddenly also bereft of belief in the poetic outcome compared to the apocalypse of the loss itself – that is to say, the textual as “next to nothing”, in several distinct senses, like Matisse’s sparest line-drawings in a sea of blank space . . .[11]

Next to Nothing was shortlisted (from among 57 titles published in the United Kingdom in 2009) for the first Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, funded by the Poet Laureate and organized by the Poetry Society in London. The other shortlisted poets were Andrew Motion, Danny Abse, Jackie Kay, Alice Oswald, John Glenday and Paul Farley. Agee was the only Irish citizen shortlisted.[24][25]

The collection was prominently reviewed in Ireland and Britain in 2009-2010, though no review has yet appeared in the United States.

"It is a profound and exceptionally moving book. I haven’t read anything so powerful for a long time. I was left with a sense of both the fragility and the huge importance of the here and now, as well as with an expanded sense of poetry’s capacity." -Hugh Dunkerley, The London Magazine (March–April 2009)

"The death of a child is every parent’s most unthinkable nightmare, from which there can be no relieved awakening. Chris Agee’s poems for the death of his young daughter Miriam in Next to Nothing are remarkable not only for their beauty but their control. Gently ironic when friends try to ‘make good’ his loss, Agee’s touch is painstakingly delicate. He imagines his daughter’s presence at Quaker meeting “like light/trembling inside/on the meeting-house’s/jambs and sills and sashes”. Astonishing for having been written at all, Next to Nothing is both a commemoration of his daughter’s life and a masterpiece of elegy, as here in the achingly short ‘Beautiful little violets’: ‘heart-shaped leaves/ shamrocks/of deepest mauve/whose time/is brief/but even so/perennial.'" -Jane Holland, Poetry Review (Summer 2010)

"Next to Nothing chronicles the years after the death of his four-year-old daughter, Miriam Aoife in a series of episodic, technically perfect and pitch-reticent lyrics. For this poet, grief crashes upon the shore of language in three distinct waves: a series of brilliant couplets, a series of minimalist, impressionistic lyrics and a series of more discursive, muscular stanzas. The whole enterprise adds up to something beyond lyric poems ... a work that breaks through the barriers of literature to become something more, a palliative journal, a chronicle of the heroism of lost parenthood, a handbook for the bereaved." -Thomas McCarthy, The Irish Times (11 April 2009)

"[It] is the most compelling book of poems I have read for years ... a very significant, permanent tribute to Miriam, and representation of her. She joins the son who was Ben Jonson’s best piece of work." -Bernard O’Donoghue, Wadham College, Oxford

"2009 has given us some terrific poetry, but the book I will remember most from this year is Chris Agee’s Next to Nothing. A profoundly personal response to the death of Agee’s four-year-old daughter in 2001, Agee’s sparse, careful, disciplined word-choices unite technical brilliance with emotional intensity; the work echoes with a sense of loss, but it is anything but Nothing. In fact, I think, Next to Nothing bears close comparison, in both subject matter and execution, to CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed." -William Crawley, BBC

Essays and criticism[edit]

Agee is also a noted essayist and critic within Ireland especially. His forthcoming collection of prose, Journey to Bosnia, brings together essays and reviews on a variety of Irish, Balkan, literary and ecological topics written since 1986.[13] He reviews mainly poetry for The Irish Times.[26]

Two of his Balkan essays, “The Stepinac File” (2000)[27] and “A Week in Sarajevo” (1996),[28] are widely known outside of Ireland. The first, which explores the collaboration of the Catholic Church with the fascist Ustashe regime in Croatia during the Second World War, has been circulated extensively on the Internet. The second, written at the end of the Bosnian war, achieved considerable civic renown when it appeared in translation in Sarajevo some months later.[7]

Editorial work[edit]

Agee is also widely known as an editor in Ireland, Britain and the United States. He has edited Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe Books, 1998, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), Unfinished Ireland: Essays on Hubert Butler (Irish Pages, 2003) and The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland (Wake Forest University Press, 2008, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts in the US in collaboration with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland[29]). He was invited to guest-edit a “Special North American Issue” (Autumn 1994) for Poetry Ireland Review and an “American Special Issue” (Summer 2000) for Metre, and to co-edit (with Joseph Parisi) a “Special Double Issue on Contemporary Irish Poetry” (Oct-Nov 1995) for Poetry (Chicago) – the latter the best-selling issue in that journal’s 96-year history.

In 2002, Agee founded Irish Pages, now widely considered Ireland’s premier literary journal.[3] It has been variously described as “a wonderful achievement” (Michael Longley); “an important event in the history of Northern Ireland“ (Hilary Wakeman); “a major development in Irish literature” (John F. Deane); and “the most important cultural journal in Ireland at the present moment” (Jonathan Allison).[30]

Balkan connections[edit]

Chris Agee has close connections with the Balkans, Croatia and Bosnia in particular. He spends two months each year at his house in Žrnovo, on the island of Korčula,[31] in the far south of Croatia, and has visited Bosnia for substantial periods many times. His second collection, First Light, includes a suite of Balkan poems written in the mid- to late 1990s, and thus constitutes one of the very rare firsthand responses, from an English-language or Western poet, to the postwar aftermath in Bosnia and Kosovo. During the same period, he wrote occasional articles on Western policy in the Balkans for Oslobodjene, the Sarajevo daily.

In 1994, he put together, for the Bosnian Institute in London, a Special Irish Issue of Bosnia Report, which was circulated widely in Britain and Ireland, including to every member of Dáil Éireann (lower house of the Irish parliament).[32] Throughout much of the war, he was an active member of Ireland-Bosnia Solidarity. In early 1996, in recognition of his cultural activity in support of Bosnia’s survival, he was invited to participate in the Sarajevo Winter Festival, the city’s first postwar arts festival. He chaired the Bosnia panel at the Queen's Belfast Festival 1997.[33] He also subsequently edited an Irish issue of the Sarajevo literary journal Novine Zid in 1997, as well as In the Heart of Europe, a collection of poems by four Irish poets published in 1998 by a local branch of Amnesty International for projects organized in Bosnia for children displaced from Srebrenica.[34][35]

Most importantly, Agee edited Scar on the Stone (1998), the first English-language anthology of Bosnian poetry published after the outbreak of the Bosnian war and the subsequent genocide and partition. It brings together fourteen of Bosnia's most distinguished poets and a selection of younger poets drawn from the country’s three main ethnic groups.

In his introduction Agee notes how the dearth and weakness of earlier translations of Bosnian literature influenced Western perceptions of the country and contributed to a lack of commitment on their part to the preservation of Bosnia's multi-ethnic culture. He also provides an account of the role of ultranationalist writers in the break-up of Yugoslavia. The anthology champions the cause of a common civic rather than a polarised tri-ethnic literature in Bosnia by assembling a group of leading poets and scholars from Britain, Ireland and America, Charles Simic, Francis R. Jones, Ted Hughes, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, John Hartley Williams, Harry Clifton, Ruth Padel, Ken Smith, Kathleen Jamie and Ammiel Alcalay, as translators. Hughes's translations of six poems by Abdulah Sidran for the anthology were among the last works he completed before his death in 1998.

Stephen Schwartz describes the anthology as one of the most important volumes in English brought into print as a result of the worldwide attention paid to the Bosnian war, observing how it reflects the issues embedded in the conflict through a comparison of the works by Abdulah Sidran and Izet Sarajlic.[36] Angus Calder commends Agee's decision to include not just "war poems" and "anti-war poems", only half of them written after the break-up of Yugoslavia began in 1991, but also prose accounts including descriptions of Sarajevo during the years of siege by the poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic and a memoir from the death camps by Rezak Hukanovic.[37]

Family background[edit]

Chris Agee’s father, Robert Cecil Agee (1932–2002), was born in New York City, to William Herman Agee (1899–1954), of Shelbyville, Tennessee, and Elsie Elizabeth Agee (1900–1988), née Burgess, of Manchester, Massachusetts. He attended Princeton University, where he took (along with John McPhee) Saul Bellow’s first creative writing course, and wrote an unpublished novel, David. He also served in the US Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, where he shipped for one summer with Donald Rumsfeld. After pursuing a literary career for several years following graduation in 1954, he attended Harvard Law School (1961–63), and practiced law in and around New York City until his death.

Agee’s mother, Anne Marie Agee (b 1930), née Stanford, was born in West Hollywood, California, to Ralph Stanford (1903–1931) of Los Angeles, and Ruth Stanford, née Inman, of Buffalo, New York. She attended Stephens College, Missouri, and the University of Southern California. She worked periodically as a secretary and then a legal secretary.

Agee’s uncle, William Cameron Agee (b 1937), is a prominent art historian of twentieth-century American modernism. His sister, Elizabeth Macon Agee (b 1963), lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Agee’s other uncle, Thomas Stanford (b 1928), is a world authority on the Mexican baroque in music and Mexico’s many indigenous musical traditions. He attended Juilliard in New York City, moving in 1955 to Mexico City, where he still lives. Over 50 years, he conducted more than 250 field trips to indigenous Native American communities.[7]

The surname Agee, apparently of American spelling, is of Huguenot origin and can be traced back to a direct ancestor, Mathieu Agé, who appears on a manifest of an immigrant ship from London, and who was one of a group of Huguenots who founded a French colony at Mannikintown, Virginia, then part of the frontier, in 1700. The name remains largely confined to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, and is now found equally among Americans of European and mainly African-American origin.[38]

Bibliography[edit]

Poetry[edit]

Criticism[edit]

As Editor[edit]

Anthologies[edit]

  • Eva Bourke and Barbara Borbala, ed. (2010). Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland. The Dedalus Press. ISBN 978-1-906614-22-5. 
  • Chris Agee, ed. (2008). The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland. Wake Forest University Press. ISBN 978-1-930630-35-2. 
  • Daniel Tobin, ed. (2007). The Book of Irish American Poetry: from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 978-0-268-04230-1. 
  • John Brown, ed. (2006). Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets. Lagan Press. ISBN 978-1-898701-60-6. 
  • Frank Ormsby, ed. (2006). The Blackbird’s Nest. Blackstaff Press. ISBN 978-0-85640-796-3. 
  • Pat Boran, ed. (2006). Wingspan: A Dedalus Sampler. The Dedalus Press. ISBN 1-904556-62-0. 
  • Patricia Craig, ed. (2006). The Ulster Anthology. Blackstaff Press. ISBN 978-0-85640-792-5. 
  • Adrian Rice, ed. (2002). A Conversation Piece. Ulster Museum. 
  • Frank Ormsby, ed. (2000). The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland. The Blackstaff Press. ISBN 978-0-85640-681-2. 

In Preparation[edit]

  • Journey to Bosnia (essays and criticism)[13]

Further Reviews[edit]

It is due to the skill of the poet that one feels at one with the grief in these poems; but the theme and structure of this book, as well as the humanity within, will ensure that Next to Nothing breaks the boundaries of mere literary work. Here, Chris Agee the poet has moved beyond the realm of poetry to embrace a wider audience.[39]

Wake Forest University Press continues its impressive dedication to Irish poetry ... with The New North: Contemporary Poetry from Northern Ireland. ...[T]he poems and poets offer an insightful, lyrical look into the psyche of 21st-century Northern Ireland.[40]

Global attention to the Bosnian war has brought a number of other useful volumes into print in English. Perhaps the most important among such titles is Scar On the Stone, edited by Chris Agee, which includes an excellent and representative selection of recent Bosnian poetry, much of it directly influenced by the 1992-95 war. I would recommend the book, which includes excerpts and commentaries by Mak and by Francis R. Jones, without qualification, and will only indicate two writers I believe deserve special attention, in that they represent two sides of Sarajevo literary life.[41]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ McIntire, Dennis (2001). International Who's Who in Poetry and Poets' Encyclopaedia. Routledge. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-948875-59-5. 
  2. ^ "Chris Agee". Irish Writers Online. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c "Chris Agee & Sinead Morrissey Poetry Reading". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  4. ^ Correspondence in the Robert Coles papers, Series 1 
  5. ^ a b c Gleason, Paul (September–October 2008). ""Anti-Dominant" Journal". Harvard Magazine (Harvard College Fund). 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Interview with Chris Agee on The Poetry Programme". [dead link]
  7. ^ "Chris Agee". Dedalus Press. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  8. ^ "Chris Agee". P&W Magazine. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  9. ^ "Chris Agee". Dublin Book Festival. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  10. ^ a b "Salt Publishing". 
  11. ^ "The Creel". 
  12. ^ a b c "Over the Edge Readings". 
  13. ^ Hoyle, Ben. "Search TLS Online Archive". London: Timesonline.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  14. ^ "On Seeing a Photograph of Affan Ramic's Dead Son". New Statesman. 24 May 1999. Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  15. ^ Chris Agee (7 March 1998). "At Six". The Irish Times. Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  16. ^ "Profile of Chris Agee". Ricorso accessdate=13 September 2010. 
  17. ^ Agee, Chris (1999). "Burning Cedar". The American Poetry Review. Retrieved 28 February 2010. [dead link]
  18. ^ "Harvard Review, Issue 29". Harvard College Library. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  19. ^ "Hay in Art". Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  20. ^ "Orion, Fall 2001". Orion Magazine. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  21. ^ Struga Poetry Evenings#Golden Wreath Laureates
  22. ^ "Dedalus Press - Chris Agee". Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  23. ^ a b Caroline Walsh (20 March 2010). "Loose Leaves". The Irish Times. Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  24. ^ a b "Shortlist for Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry". Poetry Society (UK). Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  25. ^ "Chris Agee", The Irish Times
  26. ^ "The Stepinac File", Archipelago
  27. ^ [“A Week in Sarajevo”, Habitus]
  28. ^ "The New North". culturenorthernireland.org. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  29. ^ [1]
  30. ^ "Chris Agee reading at the White House, Limerick, Ireland". 
  31. ^ Copyright Headshift Ltd, 2003. "Bosnia Report - February–March 1994 - Irish Policy on Bosnia-Herzegovina". Bosnia.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  32. ^ "Bosnia panel - The Irish Times - Thu, Nov 20, 1997". The Irish Times. 1997-11-20. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  33. ^ "Echenberg War Poetry Collection by Conflict". Warpoetrycollection.com. 2010-01-30. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  34. ^ Dave Lawrence. "Newsletter5". Dspace.dial.pipex.com. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  35. ^ ""Under Empty Skies Falconers Weep" by Stephen Schwartz". Webdelsol.com. 1997-11-06. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  36. ^ "Poetry and War - Angus Calder". Eurozine. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  37. ^ [2]
  38. ^ Thomas McCarthy (April 11, 2009). "A father left bereft". The Irish Times. 
  39. ^ Irish America Magazine, Feb./March 2009
  40. ^ "'Under Empty Skies Falconers Weep':A Personal Survey of Modern Verse in Ex-Yugoslavia and Albania", Contemporary Poetry Review, Stephen Schwartz, July 2004

External links[edit]